Dreams: Gilliam motifs

Edited by Phil Stubbs

The objective of this page is to present recurrent themes in Gilliam's work... We start with five themes, which will be added to over subsequent months. Send me more!
Craftsmanship over Bureaucracy
The father of Dennis Cooper in Jabberwocky is an experienced barrel-maker. He dislikes his son's efficiency savings at the cost of craftmanship. This character trait of Dennis's father is mirrored in Brazil - de Niro's Tuttle character acts as a renegade heating engineer due to his hatred of Central Services and its bureaucracy.

Filing Cabinets
Gilliam is obsessed with bureaucracy. This perhaps manifests itself most with the number of filing cabinets that appear in Gilliam's work - check out these...

  • Filing cabinet as cannon in The Crimson Permanent Assurance
  • Filing cabinet in the opening animation of The Meaning of Life
  • Countless filing cabinets in Brazil
  • Filing cabinets make up his Spellbound offering shown recently in London
  • Rows of filing cabinets in Gilliam's book Animations of Mortality

Any more filing cabinets to be spotted in Gilliam movies...? I'm sure there are others - I'm sure Horatio has one in Munchausen. Please let me know if you see any others.

Mistrust of Science
Gilliam's mistrust of the wonders of science are probably most apparent in Twelve Monkeys, where apparently experimentation leads to the deaths of several billion people, driving the remaining humans underground. The character Baron Munchausen also loathes science, preferring flights of fancy - "It's all logic and reason now... no place for three-legged cyclopes from the South Seas."

Gilliam feels comfortable with machines but is very sceptical about modern science. "I love things from the industrial revolution because I can understand gears and pulleys, cars and wheels. I don't get the electronic revolution because I can't get my hands on it. I'm impotent."

Love of History
Gilliam cites his love of history as being a reason he remains living in Europe. Historical figures (based on fact and fiction) are plentiful in Gilliam's work, for example Napoleon and Agamemnon in Time Bandits. In that movie the boy's parents, who ignore history, and who are obsessed with consumer products, perish.

Cages are a common site - in Time Bandits the dwarves are suspended in a cage. In Brazil, a similar cage appears in Sam's dreams (which also doubles as a sort of tram). A suspended cage returns in Munchausen (when the Baron encounters Bertholdt on the moon), but this time it's spherical! Also, I understand Gilliam wants Nicolas Cage to star in The Defective Detective.

Keith Hamel, who has studied and written about Gilliam has sent the following to Dreams regarding the director's motifs:

There are many out there who claim that Gilliam has no sense of narrative (Pauline Kael on Munchausen: "For long stretches, just about every shot is a special effect, and the scenes have the deadness of special effects w/o a clear narrative." Geoff Brown on The Fisher King: "With the grandiose scale comes an unwielding narrative, alternately garbled and contrived, cluttered with diversions of dubious effect."), but I would argue that Gilliam has a different sense of narrative that defies the clinical "cause-effect/beginning-middle-end" type of narrative that makes the world intelligible. In other words, Gilliam's narratives are not linear, they are circular (and they have many beginnings-middles&endings). Kevin ends up back in his room at the end of Time Bandits (in fact, Gilliam zooms out in the same manner he zoomed in from the cosmos to begin the film), Brazil ends with the same shot of clouds that it began, Munchausen begins and ends on the stage, 12 Monkeys begins and ends with the same close up of the boy's eyes. As I wrote in my thesis: "Gilliam deliberately constructs his films to come full circle, but the use of this narrative structure is more than a clever trick. In echoing the beginning of his films by virtually returning to them at the end, Gilliam forces the viewer to retrace their steps in an attempt to understand his narratives. Unlike most films, which unfold from beginning to end, Gilliam's films seem to move in the opposite direction. After seeing the ending, the audience almost always rethinks the beginning, seeing it in a different light based on the ending (often this leads to asking if what they saw was meant to be reality of a dream).

Chance vs Fate
Somehow connected (I know how but don't have the time or room to prove it here) to Gilliam's distrust of the linear narrative is the concept of ambiguity. Anything seems possible in Gilliam's universe, and if the world is indeed full of possibilities, then chance must play a role in what ones materialize. Or is it all fate? Brazil, for example, seems to depend on a "Kafkaesque" ploy; the whole ball of wax gets rolling because of an error - a fly falls into the printer causing it to type "Buttle" instead of "Tuttle." Is it chance or fate that Jack meets Parry in The Fisher King? (of course the film itself wonders whether all life/love is chance or fate)? And 12 Monkeys is much the same.

Large/Small motif
The HUGE Ministry of Information, demonstrated by the sweeping crane shot early on in the film, and evidenced amid hallways that seem to stretch on forever, is very large, but Sam's 5X5 office is so tiny he has to fight to keep his shared desk. Taking this motif further, Gilliam tends to use very small and simple things to disrupt, and sometimes even destroy, the large and complex structures of modernity. Dwarfs in Time Bandits; a small, unidentified part ruins Sam's huge A/C unit in Brazil; and quickly cutting to the "biggie," a virus (microscopic in nature) almost destroys the human race (and everything else) in 12 Monkeys.

Keith also adds a quote. It has to do with the motif of cages or, as Max Weber would call it, the "iron cage."

-Weber was deeply ambivalent about modernity and aware that its central dynamic, the process of rationalization, brought with it its own irrationalities: the triumph of "zweckrationalitat" on the societal level, which promised greater economic and administrative efficiency, was accompanied by the impersonality of the 'iron cage' bureaucratic machine, which curbed individual freedom, while on the cultural level it led to the intellectualization and disenchantment of the world with a loss of meaning, to the irrationalities of value commitment without ultimate guidance and certainty.

Translation: Through his repetitious physical presentation of cages and such, Gilliam demonstrates how modernity psychologically traps the individual's imagination and brings about a loss of meaning.

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